How Pradeep Ambrose, PhD ’20, MBA ’21, became a “great friend to Bermuda”
When Pradeep Ambrose, PhD ’20, MBA ’21, signed up for the One-Year MBA at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, the world had not yet heard of COVID-19, and in the academic world, virology was nearly a dead field of study.
As it happened, Ambrose’s PhD was precisely in the study of RNA viruses. At the time, most of his classmates in the Physiology, Biophysics and Systems Biology program at Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences were switching to studying cancer to further their career prospects. Ambrose had no interest in cancer. However, he had a long-standing interest in investments and how portfolios were managed. So he decided to take advantage of the Lee Family Scholarship—a full scholarship opportunity made available through his Weill Cornell PhD program—and enroll in business school in the summer of 2020, when U.S. coronavirus cases were surging and schools had turned to remote learning. He loved the MBA experience and found he has a true knack for investing as a portfolio manager in the Cayuga Fund in the Parker Center for Investment Research, winning an award for Best Stock Pick after a year of hard work.
Then, just after graduation, his MBA network unexpectedly led him to an experience that was larger than life, requiring him to pour in all that he had studied, both in the sciences and in business.
An unexpected call from an MBA classmate
The text came in the evening one day, a few months after Ambrose had graduated from business school. He was at home in New Jersey enjoying a game of Ghost of Tsushima, fully relaxed for the first time after nine years of grueling academic work, when his classmate Danielle Boris, MBA ’21, sent him the message. The country of Bermuda was in dire need of help, she texted. COVID-19 cases were surging, and they were short of qualified support. Bermuda’s leader, Premier E. David Burt, had issued an emergency call for help that Stuart Lacey (a friend of Danielle’s father, David Boris) had shared with fellow YPO members. (YPO is a global network or more than 30,000 chief executives in 142 countries.) When David Boris saw the post, he immediately thought of his daughter’s MBA classmate who had studied virology.
Ambrose’s skillset, fortuitously, turned out to be exactly what Bermuda needed. He had examined how virus variations arose, especially in mosquito-transmitted RNA viruses, and then used those variants to discover new virus genetics. While studying for his PhD, he had been co-mentored by Chris Mason, professor of physiology and biophysics, and 2020 Nobel laureate Charles M. Rice, who had won the prize for contributing to the discovery of a cure for Hepatitis C and is a faculty member in the Tri-Institutional MD- PhD Program, which includes Weill Cornell. Rice was a virus expert, and under his mentorship, Ambrose used next-generation sequencing to sequence entire populations of viruses, including billions of actual variants, in a short amount of time. Ambrose was skilled in RT-PCR, a technique that amplified DNA segments to detect viruses. When the coronavirus hit, this niche skillset suddenly became priceless.
“When do I go?” asked Ambrose when he learned the specifics of the situation from Lacey, whom Danielle had put him in touch with immediately.
“Can you fly out tomorrow?” asked Lacey.
Rescuing the lab and reporting to Bermuda’s leaders
Ambrose hopped on a flight to Bermuda the very next day, September 21, 2021, with a suitcase filled with things he had thrown together in haste the night before. The Bermudan government arranged for his pickup from the airport when he arrived and put him in the Hamilton Princess, a lovely hotel in downtown Hamilton—the capital city of Bermuda. All fees were covered, they told him. Ambrose quarantined for a few hours as he waited for the results of the COVID-19 test he had received on arrival before he went to the lab that evening. There, he met Carika Weldon, director of the Bermuda Molecular Diagnostics & Research Laboratory, science advisor to Bermuda’s government, and the one PhD on the island in charge of running all COVID-19 tests for the whole island population.
The Bermuda Molecular Diagnostics & Research Laboratory is housed in a sky-blue, one-story structure that, before the pandemic, had been a post office. Weldon had transformed it into a lab after she arrived a year ago.
A native of Bermuda, Weldon had completed advanced studies in England, like others from the island who wanted to pursue science. She obtained a PhD in biochemistry and was conducting research at Oxford when she was called back to her country to help manage the coronavirus situation. Although Weldon was not a virologist, she quickly picked up virology. Her main task was to determine who was positive and who was negative. But because of the sudden surge in cases, things were getting out of hand. Compared with the two or three new cases they had on a daily basis before the surge, there were suddenly 200 new cases a day. Weldon was working 19-hours days, from 9 a.m. to 4 a.m., to determine who was positive. Her handful of lab staff, all barely out of college, had neither the expertise nor the authority to make those calls. Then contamination issues surfaced. All these factors combined created an increasingly large backlog of tests that needed to be completed. People weren’t receiving results for days, so they weren’t quarantining, which meant the virus was spreading uncontained. When Ambrose arrived, the situation was grave.
Weldon, who also had government-related duties, began transferring lab responsibilities to Ambrose. His immediate task was to fix the contamination issue and clear the backlog. To accomplish this, he also worked long days in the lab, just as Weldon had. A week into his stay, Weldon told him she needed to take a break and passed all government responsibilities, as well, to Ambrose. Suddenly, Ambrose found himself reporting to the government of Bermuda. Essentially, he had become their science advisor.
Putting MBA skills to work
Ambrose stayed in Bermuda for one month, until the surge subsided. A typical day, while he was there, went like this: In the mornings he worked from his hotel room, where he reviewed and determined results of test samples the lab staff had extracted and plated; in the afternoon, he joined cabinet meetings via Zoom and spoke with the premier via phone or text; after the meetings, he went to the lab, where he stayed until 4 a.m. initially, 1 a.m. later in his stay. Sometimes he had special tasks to complete, such as speaking with representatives from a cruise ship and giving them official authorization to dock in Bermuda on behalf of the government. At first, Ambrose was astonished at the weight of his responsibility and authority and of the regular communications he was having with a world leader, but soon it simply became part of everyday life.
For Ambrose, who had never managed a team before, the management and leadership skills he picked up in his MBA program at Johnson became essential to managing an entire lab and taking charge of the country’s COVID-19 testing. As a Weill Cornell graduate student, he had focused on his own research project and had never managed any undergraduates. The collaborative skills he’d gained during his MBA experience as a Cayuga Fund portfolio manager, he realized, were what prepared him for the teamwork aspect of taking on an interim government role. Gathering information and reporting it to the premier, the health minister, and the chief medical officer was similar, in his opinion, to managing investor relations for the Cayuga Fund. Each new day, Ambrose drew on the reserves of knowledge and experience he’d built as a Johnson MBA student and transformed them into operable ideas and skills to navigate new obstacles and dilemmas.
After cases were back down to two or three new reports a day and Ambrose was preparing to leave Bermuda, the premier invited him to his office. There, Premier Burt thanked him and handed him a letter of appreciation he had signed. In it was written: “On behalf of the Government and people of Bermuda thank you for the invaluable service and support that you have provided to our country over the past 4 weeks.” After praising Ambrose for responding with “immediacy and selflessness” to their call for assistance, the letter continues: “You are a great friend to Bermuda, and we thank you again for all that you have done.”
Personal gains and takeaways
While in Bermuda, Ambrose had very little personal time. As his departure loomed, he decided to see the island: During his last three days, he woke up before 8 a.m. and went jet skiing and scuba diving before attending cabinet meetings in the afternoon, followed by lab work. He looked forward to returning home and getting some rest, but swimming in the clear waters of the mysterious Bermuda Triangle and gazing up at the gorgeous blue skies, Ambrose couldn’t help but enjoy a moment of wonder over where he was and what he was doing. It had been a wild experience.
In the 1950s and ’60s, the United States government, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Rockefeller Foundation had joined hands and embarked on an era of virus discovery—specifically, mosquito-transmitted viruses. When a report of a disease from a certain location emerged, scientists from the CDC would travel to that location, inspect the disease, and develop a vaccine. Ambrose, who had written about this in his graduate thesis, admired the traveling virologists who had gone out into the field and done what they could to help. The best part of his experience in Bermuda, he reflects, is that he was able to follow in their footsteps.
Ongoing collaboration between Weill Cornell and Bermuda
After his return to the U.S., Ambrose helped to set up a collaboration among Weill Cornell, the Government of Bermuda, and the New York Genome Center to study the development of the COVID virus on the island. Because Bermuda’s government had saved samples of all positive cases found on the island since the start of the pandemic, it could provide material for a solid study on how the virus evolved in a population located 600 miles away from any land mass. As a result of this collaboration, Katie Dickieson, MEng ’21, a student from the Mason Lab, run by Ambrose’s mentor at Weill Cornell Medicine, Chris Mason, traveled to Bermuda to set up genome sequencing in Bermuda and pinpointed the island’s first Omicron case.
Ambrose has agreed to be on call when more surges occur on the island, or when Weldon is in need of another break. Meanwhile, he is finishing up a paper on mosquito-transmitted viruses and plans to dive into coronavirus research for a while before probing the field of biotech investment research as a long-term career. He is right back on track after a slight divergence from his path involving an experience that equipped him with new strengths, including greater leadership and management skills, and, perhaps most importantly, confidence in himself.
Danielle Boris, whom Ambrose stayed in touch with throughout his stay in Bermuda, commented that what Ambrose did was “such a show of courage” that reflects how much he loves what he does and how he cares about people’s wellbeing. She also appreciates the power of professional networks that made this possible. The MBA class of 2021 “did a really fantastic job of creating a network and building friendships even though we were virtual,” she said. Ambrose’s achievement in Bermuda proves the value of these connections.
Like everyone else, Ambrose enriches himself through first-hand experience. But some rewards are unique to him: a fist bump from the premier of a country, for one, along with the picture that come to mind whenever he thinks back on his first professional experience out of school: palm trees, pink sand, calm ocean waves, and a lab in a sky-blue post-office building.
Photos courtesy of Pradeep Ambrose.